Millions of fans will now be mightily relieved to hear that tally has now risen to a triumphant 17 albums that sound exactly the same. Relieved because, this time last year, it really looked like the legendary Aussie rockers were done for. Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young died in 2017 following a long battle with dementia. The same year, frontman Brian Johnson was forced to quit because of hearing problems. (Guns N' Roses’ Axl Rose was drafted to complete a tour but he was never going to be a long-term replacement). Then the band’s powerhouse drummer, Phil Rudd, was arrested in New Zealand on charges of “attempting to procure a murder”.
But a mysterious device Johnson has compared to a miniature “car battery” has apparently restored his hearing. The murder-related charges against Rudd have been withdrawn and Malcolm’s nephew, Stuart, has strapped on his uncle’s guitar. So lead guitarist Angus exhumed some song ideas he and his brother worked up back in 2008 and fleshed them out into a set of 12 new songs that rock as heavily as anything in the band’s 200 million-and-counting-selling back catalogue.
From the opening blast of “Realize” to the closing fret-slider of “Code Red”, those mighty, gear-crunching power chords brook no opposition. Their definitive "root and fifth" chords are the monster trucks of the rock world. Technically neither major nor minor, they’ve got the outsized traction to climb and crush every emotion in their path, without cessation or subtlety. Because nobody wants introspection from these crazy old dudes. Above those chords, Angus treats his guitar neck like a greasy pole, still slithering up and down the priapic pentatonic scale like a horny teenager: standard fare from the 65-year-old who still wears his school uniform to work.
Lyrically, there are no surprises from a band who recently conceded they don’t know what “woke” means. In the 2017 book Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, The Independent arts columnist Fiona Sturges acknowledged their lyrics have always been laden with “casual sexism and oafish double entendres”. But she loves them anyway, thrilling to the positive charge of that precision-tooled rock machinery.
It helps that the lads are keenly aware of their own puerile silliness. The lairy old rockers feel like less of a pop-cultural threat to women than the men like Johnny Depp who talk a good, arty feminist game then behave differently behind closed doors. Which is not to say that songs on this such as “Money Shot” offer a sophisticated view of modern sexuality: “Doctor, what's the antidote?/ Lady, just try the money shot/ Best taken when hot/ I got a good prescription/ For the state of your condition…” Delivered by a raspy old bloke who often sounds like a man desperately howling for a ventilator, it’s not the greatest fit for a pandemic. But it is what it is.
Fans will already have heard and rejoiced in copper-bottomed singles “Demon Fire” and “Shot in the Dark”, with killer-caffeinated licks ground and filtered to drive the listener’s energy levels up, up and away. Elsewhere Johnson has fun with a little cowboy posturing on “Wild Reputation”, which opens with a throbbing bass and makes space for a spaghetti western spoken-word section in which the singer growls: “I’m a-coming down main street/ Get outta my way/ I aint stoppin’ for nobody…” A song like “System Down” allows the band’s legion of sweet, nocturnal IT crowd devotees to feel like armour-plated knights of the internet on long evenings spent de-bugging security software for international investment banks. The nerds know they have a friend in Angus Young. He’s 5ft 3in and says he is so small that ”when I strike an open A chord I get physically thrown to the left, and when I play an open G chord I go right. That's how hard I play, and that's how a lot of my stage act has come about. I just go where the guitar takes me.”
The continuing appeal of AC/DC lies in the fact that this self-proclaimed bunch of “noisy little guys” consistently sound like they’re having good-hearted, OTT fun. They’ve made so much money by now they have no need to keep churning out albums to cover the mortgage. This is what they do. They do it for themselves and the fans. Everyone’s happy.